party line

When Agnes finally reaches the front door, she looks so beautifully turned-out in her vintage, poppy-print housecoat it’s like she set off from the back kitchen sometime in the nineteen fifties.
‘Hello!’ she says, through a crackle of thick, coral pink lipstick. ‘Thank you so much for coming.’
She leads me slowly through into the lounge, and after gesturing to the sofa, perches herself on the edge of an armchair and fixes me with a bright smile.
‘Now. What’s this all about?’ she says.
I explain that her doctor has made the referral, but as I carry on talking I can’t help wondering if I’ve got the right address. Struggling with ADLs the referral said. Recent UTI. Needs TDS care & help with meds. Really? The room’s as perfect as Agnes. No sign of dust or disorder; nothing out of place; a clock and two porcelain clowns equally spaced on the mantelpiece; a TV remote symmetrically aligned with paper, pen and reading lens on a discreetly placed, Moroccan side table.
‘How are you feeling today?’ I ask her, opening the yellow folder.
‘Oh. You know,’ she says, smiling even brighter. ‘Annoyed with myself. I took the Christmas decorations down yesterday and now I can’t find them.’
‘I’m sure they’ll turn up.’
‘I hope so. Some of them were very old. Falling to pieces, but – well – you get used to these things.’
I know what you mean. My favourite decoration is a snowman playing the violin. He’s looking pretty shabby these days, but it’s nice to see him every year.’
‘I bet!’
‘I’m sure your decorations will turn up.’
‘I hope so,’ says Agnes. ‘I feel so cross with myself.’

-oOo-

After the examination I review the facts. All Agnes’ observations are normal. Her medication is nicely ordered in a dosette box that her son, Barry, organises at the beginning of each week. She is perfectly able to wash and dress herself; before her recent illness she was driving once a week to bridge club.
‘Shall I ring Barry and see what he has to say?’
‘That’s a good idea!’
‘Do you mind if I use the landline? Only – if I ring using the work mobile, the number won’t show and he might think it’s a sales call.’
‘Of course! Please – help yourself…’
Barry is on the address function. I press call – and it’s immediately apparent that the phone is on loudspeaker.
‘How do I take it off?’
‘Oh – it’s always like that’ says Agnes. ‘Don’t worry. Barry won’t mind.’
The phone keeps ringing – extremely loudly – and I’m still trying to figure out how to mute the thing when he picks up.
BARRY MOSS says Barry, in a voice so thunderous and sharp I want to hold the phone away from my ear.
‘Hello Barry. My name’s Jim. I’m a nursing assistant from the hospital…’
YES. UR-HUM.
‘Barry? The doctor’s asked that we come round to see your mum’s alright – to do her blood pressure and so on….’
YES
‘…but before I go on, can I just say… you’re on speakerphone at the minute and I don’t know how to take it off’
I smile and nod at Agnes; she smiles back.
YOU CAN’T. IT’S LIKE IT ALL THE TIME.
‘Would you like me to call you back on my work mobile?’
NO. IT’S ALRIGHT.
‘Okay. Agnes is sitting right here with me…’
I can’t make it any clearer that he’s being overheard, but if Barry’s understood, he makes no sign.
HOW IS SHE?
‘She’s fine. Aren’t you, Agnes?’
‘Absolutely!’ says Agnes, shaking her head and smiling. ‘Never felt better!’
YOU CAN’T TRUST A WORD SHE SAYS, YOU KNOW.
‘Oh, now – I don’t know about that…’
Agnes straightens in the chair. Although her smile doesn’t falter, I can see her fingers whiten round her knee.
Because I can’t immediately think of a way of stopping him saying anything else, I look to buy myself some time.
‘Let me hand you over so you can have a quick word with your mum,’ I tell him. ‘Then we can all have a chat about what to do next.’
HAND HER OVER, THEN
‘Hello darling!’ says Agnes.
HELLO MUM shouts Barry. WHAT’S ALL THIS? A PARTY LINE?

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